Art and Experience: These filmmakers took a decade to make their feature debut, but they learned some invaluable lessons along the way.
[Editor’s Note: No Film School asked Luke Barnett and Vincent Masciale to gather 10 lessons from their 10 years in the film industry, culminating in their feature film debut, Fear Inc., coming to theaters October 21st.]
In 2015, our 10th year in Los Angeles, we decided that no matter what, we were going to make our first film. Now, I don’t think there should be any sort of timeline on how and when your career should happen, but after seeing countless friends move home and countless others get to that next level, we decided it was time to make the push. Whether it was on the budget we wanted with giant movie stars or on a shoestring budget with a handful of friends, we would start shooting on August 3rd, 2015.
We’re proud to say we did, and we actually got to combine those two versions. Committing to making our first feature quite literally changed our lives. We invested pretty much every dollar we had and opened credit cards to get it off the ground, but it got us amazing managers, amazing agents, and hopefully a movie a lot of people will enjoy this Halloween.
People usually don’t believe us, but we cold e-mailed the major agencies and all responded positively to the movie.
We filmed Fear, Inc., a horror-comedy based on our 2014 short film, over the course of 15 days on what we like to think of as a hellishly stressful low budget. The film stars Lucas Neff (Raising Hope), Caitlin Stasey (Reign), Chris Marquette (The Girl Next Door), Stephanie Drake (Mad Men), Mark Moses (Mad Men), and Academy Award nominee Abigail Breslin (Scream Queens). We premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, where we sold to Dean Devlin’s (Independence Day) Electric Entertainment.
It took a long time to find the right people to go on this journey with, but it was all worth it to have a dedicated team willing to put it all on the line to make something great. We could probably write a book on what we’ve learned over the course of the last year—often the hard way—but for now, we just wanted to pass on 10 things we think would help other first time filmmakers succeed in this insane endeavor in, hopefully, less than a decade.
1. Set a production start date
Everyone says they’re planning to make a movie. 99% don’t do it. Setting a date shows other people that your movie is really happening; it also puts the pressure on you to get creative, strategy-wise.
After striking out on financing time after time, we decided that we would start shooting on August 3rd, no matter what. If we couldn’t raise a dollar, we would beg, borrow, steal, and take out credit cards to shoot it with a skeleton crew and a cast of friends.
This changed everything for us; it’s really where we started to get momentum. We should also note that Vince’s wife was nine months pregnant at this time, which is why we set the date we did. Even though picking a date might sound arbitrary, it was enough to convince everyone on our film that they had to come on board or risk missing out. Also, there’s a good chance we would have never made this movie if we didn’t pick a date and stick to it.
2. Network like crazy, even in unlikely places
Luke has worked in the bar industry for most of his time in LA. He got a great job with a company called Vintage Bar Group that gave him the flexibility to write and produce projects. In this environment, he was constantly meeting people. You wouldn’t believe the number of people he met working in bars who ended up contributing massively to making Fear, Inc. a reality.
There are dozens of examples of this. For one, Luke befriended multiple actors currently starring on massive TV shows. They happened to have a break between seasons and came out for a day or two because they believed in the script. Also, a bartender Luke worked with who had gone on to get a big television job came on and invested enough money to save our shoot—merely three days before we started.
Networking is what made this movie a reality. These were relationships we built over the course of a decade. Get yourself into situations where you can meet talented people and most importantly, be nice! Being nice will take you a long way in this town.
3. Build a strong body of work
We worked often with Will Ferrell’s “Funny or Die” website, writing and producing topical comedy videos and a Walking Dead series. People reacted positively to these; multiple videos went viral, and ended up on the front page of sites like Deadline, Variety, and The Huffington Post.
When you’re a first-time filmmaker—and this is especially true if the word “horror” is in your film’s description—it’s hard to convince established people to get on board, especially with a low budget. But having a great body of work that people can see and say, “Oh, man, I want to work with these guys” changes the game. It took us 10 years, but those 10 years were well spent pouring our own money into shorts and other projects. In fact, Fear, Inc. is actually based on a short film we did in 2014.
4. Spend lots of time developing your script
Spend more time on the script than you think you should. When you’re a first-time filmmaker, the script is 100% what people use to decide whether they’re going to invest in your project, act in your project, or work on your project.
We did multiple table reads with actor friends. At the end of each one, we conducted a full-on discussion about what was working and what wasn’t. We had people fill out anonymous surveys at the end asking things like: “On a scale of 1-10, how was the pacing in act 2?” and “What did you like most about the script? What did you like least?” These readings changed the script dramatically.
When an actor liked the script, they watched our “Funny or Die” work and became excited to take the meeting.
You’re going to send your script to hundreds of people, so you better well put in the time to make sure it’s as good as it can be. Remember, people only read it once.
5. Use locations you have
Of course, you want to tell your story as best as you can, but if you’re shooting on a tiny budget, it helps to start with locations you have access to. Do you work at a bar that might let you shoot for a day? Can the “date night” scene you wrote to be at an ice skating rink be changed to a bar without sacrificing story? On a small indie film, locations will be a big percentage of the budget. But I bet, if you ask really nicely, the friend whose dad loves you and has a mansion in the hills might just let you film at his pool for six hours.
We had been advised to write something that takes place in one location, which makes sense. But we wanted to make it look a little bigger, so we combined the two: we shot two weeks in a house and one week on locations. This worked for the budget, but also gave us some great locations (haunted house, abandoned town, desert, parking garage, etc.), which added production value.
6. Cast strategically
When we first approached a certain casting director (I won’t name names) and told her our budget, she handed us a physical list of former action stars and actors who were on TV shows in the ’80s. She told us these people will do just about any movie for $2-10K and will bring enough value to make your budget back internationally. Of course, we didn’t want to devalue our film by casting stars barely worthy of the SyFy channel. (No offense to SyFy—we genuinely loved Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus.)
That’s where we were lucky enough to have executive producers John Suits and Gabriel Cowan of New Artists Alliance. They had done lots of great indie films, like SXSW 2013’s Cheap Thrills and Just Before I Go, and came on early to give tons of advice. The first piece of advice we got was somewhat discouraging: sadly, a lot of name actors see low-budget horror as a step back. As our background is in comedy, we intentionally infused a lot of humor in the script. Thus, when it went out to the agents, it was billed as more of a Scream or Cabin in the Woodsthan a traditional horror movie. We were really lucky that the agents loved the script and saw potential for their clients. The agent is essentially the gatekeeper to the talent, so if they believe in you and your script, they will push for their actors to be in it.
No one who has starred in three TV shows or done 80 movies wants to audition for a low-budget film, and in my opinion, they shouldn’t have to.
This is where the body of work came in. When an actor liked the script, they watched our “Funny or Die” work and became excited to take the meeting. That’s another thing: we took meetings instead of doing auditions. These days, you can look up an actor online and watch them in 50 things. Given the actor had a decent resume, we didn’t see the need to audition them unless the role was very specific. Later, the actors told us this was very refreshing. No one who has starred in three TV shows or done 80 movies wants to audition for a low-budget film, and in my opinion, they shouldn’t have to. They’ve earned that. One thing filmmakers often don’t think about is the fact that actors want to work; often, if someone is starring on a TV show or doing big studio movies, and the right script comes along, they are very open to the opportunity to star in a smart indie that has the potential to go to a big festival.
7. Hire A-list department heads
Our entire crew was fantastic, but one of the things that I think took it over the top was having department heads who believed in the project enough to go above and beyond from start to finish. Our other amazing producers (Natalie Rose Masciale and Heather Kasprzak), DP (Shan Liljestrand), composer (Dustin Morgan), sound team (Ice Men Audio), makeup + SFX (Laurie Hallak), and multiple other key people will all be working on massive studio movies soon. We have no doubt about that. But first, they believed in Fear, Inc’s potential enough to pour the blood, sweat, and tears into the project from day one all the way until we delivered the movie to our distributor. Find people with A-list talent who believe in you enough to see the project as a calling card for themselves—and in the end, it will be.
8. Create a stellar on-set environment
Making movies is stressful; making a low-budget movie is even more stressful and pays less money. One thing all cast and crew raved about was how our set was run. Not only did we get amazing people to work on the film, but we cast and crewed up with personalities in mind. If you’re going into the trenches with people for three weeks—shooting overnights with action scenes, beating people up, doing blood gags—you want to know you’re going to be around people you like.
We didn’t overwork our crew. We did 12-hour days, max. We didn’t yell. We fed everyone very well (not a single slice of pizza!). Providing good food and a big craft services table may seem insignificant, but those things go a long way. We worked hard, but we also had a great time and laughed constantly. We had a blast on set. After all, we’re making a movie here, not curing cancer! We think the final product reflects the amazing attitude on set. Also, it got people excited to work with us again when we (hopefully) have a bigger budget.
9. Get a sales agent on board early
The sad truth is that when it comes to the major festivals (Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Toronto), there is a certain level of politics. Almost every filmmaker we talked to at Tribeca had a sales agent that helped push it in. Our advice? Get really good at writing email pitches. People usually don’t believe us, but we cold e-mailed the major agencies and all responded positively to the movie.
We got our sales agent at CAA by sending a short, well-written email with a solid sales trailer.
Don’t lie, but do showcase the best attributes of your film. Embellishing may be necessary. Think about what you would read in a short email pitch of your movie that would make you see its value. Did one of your EPs have a movie at SXSW? Is your lead actor on a TV show? What is it about your movie that will make an agent a lot of money? In the end, that’s what they care about. We got our sales agent at CAA by sending a short, well-written email with a solid sales trailer.
10. A good lawyer is non-negotiable
To be sure, you’ll want a good entertainment lawyer attached from the beginning to help set up everything from investor deals to actor contracts. But where your lawyer will really prove a godsend is when you sell the film. Without question, the film’s sale was the longest and most stressful part of the process for us, and without our lawyer, Sam Curphy, we would have either gotten completely screwed over or still be learning how to read legalese. Get a lawyer on early and thank us later.